‘The First Citizen of India’

In January 1900, Rudyard Kipling wrote to Charles Eliot Norton, “I’ve done a long leisured Asiatic yarn in which there are hardly any Englishmen. It has been a labor of great love and I think it is a bit more temperate and wiser than much of my stuff.” This was Kim, Kipling’s most successful novel, which he had begun in the early 1890s, intending it to be an adventure story set in India. When he returned to it in the fall of 1899, he was recovering from a series of personal setbacks. In 1898, his beloved sister, Trix, had been diagnosed with mental illness. Then, in early 1899, while visiting America, Kipling had caught pneumonia, and had lain too close to death to be informed of the death of his six-year-old daughter Josephine.

However, Kipling was unlikely to let any hint of personal tragedy touch his public reputation. In 1901, when he published Kim after reworking the older material for an adventure story over a “gloomy, windy autumn,” Kipling was thirty-six years old and was beginning to be known as a literary propagandist for empire. Two years earlier, he had exhorted the United States, which was then about to invade the Philippines, to help the British carry the “White Man’s Burden” and civilize its “new-caught, sullen people, half-devil and half-child.” In 1899 he had also published a series of patriotic verses in an attempt to rally the British public against the Boers in South Africa.

For a writer he had odd friends, such as Cecil Rhodes and Theodore Roosevelt. This hobnobbing with both hardened and budding imperialists perplexed and dismayed the writers who admired him: men such as William James, who read his poem “The White Man’s Burden” with consternation, and Joseph Conrad, who thought that Kipling’s justification for the British armed intervention in South Africa—that it was promoting democracy—was enough to make one “die laughing.” Kipling’s jingoism, which made him unattractive to many later generations of readers, seemed un-British even to his British peers, such as Max Beerbohm, who mercilessly lampooned him. But then Kipling was in many ways an outsider in Britain.

Born in Bombay, Kipling, like Kim, had an idyllic early childhood, speaking Hindustani before he spoke English, indulged by his parents and native servants. As he wrote in his memoir, Something of Myself,

Give me the first six years of a child’s life and you can have the rest…. My first impression is of daybreak, light and colour and golden and purple fruits at the level of my shoulder. This would be the memory of early morning walks to the Bombay fruit mar-ket with my ayah…a Portuguese Roman Catholic who would pray—I beside her—at a wayside Cross. Meeta, my Hindu bearer, would sometimes go into little Hindu temples where, being below the age of caste, I held his hand and looked at the dimly seen, friendly Gods….

In the afternoon heats before we took our sleep, she or Meeta would tell us stories…

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